A new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association supports what all yogis already know: Yoga is the most effective remedy for chronic lower back pain. While it's widely recognized that yoga can greatly reduce and help eliminate back pain, there have been very few studies that can offer proper evidence. Until now, that is.
Researchers broke people into three groups: usual care, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). The usual care group received traditional treatment, without intervention. The CBT group learned about chronic pain, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga techniques, as well as how to change their perception of pain. The MBSR group did not focus on pain, but rather on yoga, breathing, mindfulness, and meditation techniques. The results showed the CBT and MBSR groups had significantly less pain and greater functionality than the usual care group, up to a year later. Unfortunately, CBT is often costly, and not widely available. But you can practice yoga anytime, anywhere, and it's free! (Try these 14 Yoga Poses That Heal Back Pain.)
How does yoga help reduce lower back pain?
- Flexibility. A few simple yoga moves can greatly enhance the flexibility in your back and in the muscles surrounding it. When you have tight hips, hamstrings, or other muscles near your lower back, they pull on it, causing pain. A flexible back is a pain-free back; a flexible body is a healthy body. If you bend, you won't break.
- Strength. When your core is strong, front and back, your spine is protected and is less likely to get injured in the first place. Yoga is excellent for all-around core strengthening.
- Lengthening. All the sitting we do at desks and in cars, planes, or trains causes spinal compression. This can cause disc problems, a recipe for pain. Yoga is extremely effective in lengthening out the spine and reversing that compression.
- Being in the moment. Yoga teaches you to be in the present moment, not in fretting over the past or worrying about the future. As such, you learn to be more mindful of the here and now, which can reduce your perception of pain.
- Breathing. Yoga teaches you to lengthen and deepen your breathing, which helps tremendously with pain. When you're breathing in a short and shallow manner, your body thinks it's in danger (or in fight-or-flight mode) and tenses up in response. Tense muscles can intensify pain. If you learn to deepen your breathing, your body will feel it's in rest-and-restore mode and relax.
- Alignment. As mentioned in the flexibility point, tight hips, hamstring, or other surrounding muscles can pull on your lower back. This pulling can cause your sacrum (among other things) to come out of alignment, causing pain. Simple yoga poses can loosen the offending tight muscles, allowing your body to stay (or come back to) proper alignment.
Think you aren't flexible enough to start yoga? Flexibility starts in the mind. If you allow yourself to believe you can be flexible, you will be. (Try these yoga poses for people who can't touch their toes.) Chronic back pain doesn't have to be a part of your life—yoga can help. It's official!